Eastcapades

The Story

Kashgar - Chengdu Sept 4 - Sept 30

eastcapades-graphics-4.jpg

challenge

+11570m/-12606m

ROUTE

1184km

    TIME

      95:01

off road

0km

SYLVIA

New skill learned: being comfortable in the uncomfortable.  

Sept 4 - we’re up early in the morning to catch our flight to Lanzhou (capital and largest city of the northwest Gansu Province). It has been difficult to buy a flight ticket, and we’re a bit worried that the bikes might cause an issue at the airport of Kashgar.

When we leave the Sultan Hotel at 6 in the morning on our bikes, downtown is still closed to traffic with roadblocks and heavy police presence. It feels like being in a city under siege. No surprise I’m happy to leave Kashgar. This city doesn’t feel tourist friendly to me at all.

At the airport we pack our backpacks, Frank takes off the pedals, turns the handle-bars inwards, and let some air out of our tube-less tires. “Ready for check-in!” we naively think, whereas the real adventure is about to start.

When purchasing our tickets, China Southern Airlines confirmed that packaging service would be available at the airport. The check-in is easy until they see our bikes. From that moment on until arriving at the gate it took us 4 hours. Packaging means wrapping a cardboard around the frame and attaching the tires to the bike. Then, we must carry our bikes to the loading zone. Once there, we worry how the company will store bikes on the plane (I guess we will never know) and that our tires will be deflate completely. By now, in normal life, I would have been stressed. Here, on the road, I feel that if it doesn’t work out, we will find a solution at the end.

When we wait for our luggage at the carousel at Lanzhou airport and search for the oversized luggage pickup, our bikes show up on the carousel like regular luggage, with completely deflated tires. Frank and I look a bit worried at each other because it’s really difficult to inflate tubeless tires with a hand-pump. But Frank, my hero, is able to get enough air into the tires to get us to a hotel. Altogether, it took us no less than 14 hours from Kashgar to our hotel room. We arrive exhausted and hungry.

Hotel staff is very friendly, and the Hui Muslims in the small restaurant even nicer. I start feeling welcomed in China, and it’s a really good feeling.

We have no idea what kind of food we ordered, but when the plates are finally in front of us, we love it. Very spicy, both of us try to figure out what kind of meat we’re eating until Frank discovers the head of a chicken in the plate. Nevertheless, we finish the whole thing and the business owners look happy that we appreciate their cuisine.

Next morning, we bike from Lanzhou airport to Lanzhou city (65 km apart). It is slightly rainy and grey, but it feels good not overheating for once, and we arrive early afternoon in Lanzhou. A 3,6 million people industrial city with very bad air quality. Frank is struggling to keep his nose clear from the dust, and because I’m always behind him on the bike, at multiple times, I get sprayed with some of his mucus residue. Ah, life is always surprising with him.

Finding the home-stay we’ve booked, is another challenge. Luckily two very nice University students walk us to the place and call our host. The location of the homestay is off by 2 km on the app Frank is using. Without the help of the friendly students, we would still be wandering in Lanzhou to find a place to stay because we could not call them.

For your good information: it’s almost impossible for foreigners to get a SIM card in China, unless you have a Chinese friend or stay a few months in the same place.

The retired couple who rents one of their rooms to tourists is very welcoming. They even invite us for lunch and dinner, and every evening we share a white melon, specialty fruit from the area.

The prefecture-level city, located on the banks of the Yellow River, is a key regional transportation hub, connecting areas further west by rail to the eastern half of the country. Historically, it has been a major link on the Northern Silk Road. The city is also a centre for heavy industry and petrochemical industry. Lanzhou was previously ranked as one of the cities with the worst air quality in the world, due to industrial pollution and its situation in a narrow river valley. Since 2014, the government recommends not to drink the tap water due to high levels of benzene. Government measures to reduce pollution levels have been effective, and in 2015 the city was awarded China ‘s climate progress title.

Lanzhou is a vibrant city with many busy bazaars, and a wonderful Museum (Gansu Provincial Museum) displaying artifacts from the area’s Silk Road past. My absolute favourite place in the city. One plaque at the beginning of the Silk Road exhibit shows the information below.

The romantic idea that in the past it was possible to live in peace together appeals to me. Today however it is very clear that minorities are oppressed by the Chinese government.

In general, Hui Muslims are a bit reserved, but you can feel a real kindness when they look or talk to you. Specialty food is the Lanzhou Spicy Beef Noodles. It’s so spicy that both of us have to deal with frequent washroom stops. After our visit in Lanzhou, we bike to Linxia.

 Before leaving the city, we try to buy gas for our stove at the gas station. An impossible mission it appears. Frank is ready to call all the gas station employees ‘stupid’ (with the help of Google translate). When he realizes that nobody will sell us gas, he starts to bike in full speed Frank mode, and I have a hard time to keep up. Eventually, the misty green landscapes and a few photos further calms his nerves. 

 Later, we try to replace the gas with a dissolvent but it doesn’t work either. So, no cooking or hot tea while camping. Only bread with some honey, a carrot and some fruit. I did not sign up for this, but I guess this is also part of our trip. The uncomfortable becomes acceptable.

On the way to Linxia, we even meet a fellow Chinese biker, coming from Chengdu biking to Kashgar. At many occasions, people look at us, and clearly, we are the first Caucasian they see in the flesh. Our bare legs fascinate them. I think Frank has even more success than me, because his legs are full of hair. I work hard with my tweezers every week to keep control over the looks of my legs, and even though I love Frank’s legs, I don’t want mine to look like his.

On our way to Linxia, we encounter big construction projects, either new highways, train tracks, or at the entrance of cities and towns, new housings. Lots of them are still empty, or abandoned for a few years already. Is the Chinese economy doing well or is it just another (extremely) big speculative bubble? I would like to ask people living in China for their opinion but my Mandarin is too poor.

I’m quite disappointed with Linxia even though people and food are nice. The mosques are mostly new buildings and the old Hui quarters of the city have been destroyed, rebuild and now look like another Chinese Disney World. Sometimes, if you are lucky, you can have a glimpse behind the scenes and see the old Linxia. Or when you take a picture and the locals rediscover their home town.

I am excited to leave Linxia and go to Eastern Tibet. Our next town is Xiahe. After 100km biking, we see our first Stupa on the way. Tibet land starts.

When we avoid biking through a tunnel, we discover for the first time a Tibetan village with a small monastery and children monks playing in the streets. We were happy to spend some time with them, and they seem to share our pleasure. 

The road to Xiahe is pleasant, even if it goes up and it’s raining occasionally. Camping is definitely a challenge since we’re in China. It is hard to find a spot away from the road, with a clean water source and a bit hidden. One evening, we’re happy when we can sleep in a Tibetan cabin/restaurant for one night, heat some water for a tea and rest. 

In Xiahe, we stay in a nice hotel owned by a Dutch Tibetan couple. The place feels a bit like home, with its beautiful Tibetan decoration and Western & Chinese food. I can recharge my batteries for a few days, have our clothes washed, connect with my kids and grandkids, friends and family. Without rest days, I feel overwhelmed, unable to digest what I have seen and would feel disconnected from the people I love. 

Xiahe is a nice little town, with a majority of Tibetans and Hui Muslims, although with no political or administrative power, like all minority’s in China. Han Chinese hold power in all regions of China, even if they are a minority in some localities.

One of the biggest Tibetan Monasteries outside of the Tibetan Autonomy Region is in Xiahe. Like ninety seven percent of all the monasteries, Labrang Monastery has also been destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. Today, almost the entire place has been rebuilt, renovated, and even improved with running water and electricity. It still holds six different schools, with a famous Tibetan Buddhism Medicine school. Before the revolution, it housed 4000 monks, but today the Chinese government allows no more than 1500 monks. Labrang is a famous pilgrim place for many Tibetan Buddhists who come from far. I have not felt spirituality in the many monasteries we visited, however watching their devotion to Buddhism, makes them look serene. The payed guided tour of the monastery is rather disappointing. The snobby Tibetan monk has no pleasure sharing the place and information with the small group of tourists we are.

For more informative about the Cultural Revolution and how it affected the Tibetans, please click on link below:

http://tibet.net/2016/10/revisiting-the-cultural-revolution-in-tibet/

From Xiahe we bike to Langmusi, a lovely small town in a breath taking location surrounded by alpine mountains located at 3300 m. On the way to the little town, we enjoy the beautiful surrounding sights. It is colder and we see the first snow. Unfortunately, our mountain high has been a bit spoiled when both of us were attacked and bitten by a big dog. A very scary experience, hopefully the dog didn’t have rabies. From now on, we always carry a wooden stick with us, and we already have to use it on several occasions. These wild dogs are lingering along the road in the Grasslands waiting to attack for food or to defend their territory. Even the Tibetans fear them. They’re a mix of Tibetan Mastiffs and street dogs, and they are absolutely frightening.

Fortunately, Langmusi makes up for our bad experiences. It is separated in two. The biggest part of the town belongs to the Gansu province, and the smaller part to the Sichuan province.  It is administered by two different provinces, because of the two rivalling monasteries. The Sichuan Monastery looks older and more authentic. Even the monks seem to come from another time. Prior to their evening prayers, they run in the streets, pee without any shyness in front of the Tibetans and tourists, and continue their way to the temple. I like Langmusi better than Xiahe. There’s a really good vibe, and not only because of a small Hui restaurant serving the best apple pie in China. 

After three rest days, our legs are still a bit tired when we get back on our bikes on another misty morning. Next longer stop is Songpan. It takes us three days to bike through more Grassland, Wetlands and tunnels. I love the first two parts, but not so much the tunnels. For one of them, a lovely Chinese stayed behind us with his car to keep us safe. It’s a scary experience to bike through these dark tunnels with only a small front and rear light, trucks and cars honking. I rather take the headwind, rain and crazy dogs if I could choose. But in the end, the exciting views and experiences let me forget the negatives. On the way to Songpan, we stop in a small town, Wanzhou, eat more spicy food, see again fellow Chinese travellers we’ve met in Langmusi, and in the evening, we watch men and women dancing on a public square. Dancing seems to be the favourite occupation in China, either in bigger groups or the classic tango. The secret to a long healthy life?

 In Songpan, we look for the ‘lonely planet’ recommended hotel ‘Emma’s guesthouse’ and leave disappointed. The rooms are not very welcoming, it is humid and the showers run very slowly. It’s not the first time we are disappointed with the travel guide recommendations. Most of the time, the guides have not been updated, and other travellers we talked to have the same feeling. When we look around, we find better and cheaper options to stay overnight. However, Emma was very helpful adding us ‘last minute’ to a sightseeing tour to Huanglong Scenic Valley (Unesco World Heritage site). The area is known for its colourful pools. Absolutely breath taking.

The stay in Songpan was even better because we met new friends, Murielle and Bertrand. Two lovely French with a caustic humour, like Frank’s. Bertrand was even able to fluster Frank and make him speechless. Can you imagine this? 

From Songpan we bike for two days to Dujiangyan. We bike through the area where the 2008 ‘Great Sichuan Earthquake’ and the 2017 big landslide destroyed many places and killed thousands of people.

The earthquake caused the largest number of aftershocks ever recorded, including 200,000 landslides. Over 69,000 lost their lives, 375,000 reported injured. The earthquake left more than 4.8 Mio people homeless. The entire corridor we biked from Songpan to Dujiangyan was very depressing. Narrow valleys, misty weather and dead villages did not help our morale. Even after so many years and all the efforts of the Chinese governments to rebuild roads and villages, it feels morose and sad. I can’t imagine how hard it has been for the population to rebuild their lives and livelihood. The tunnels we cross to get to Dujiangyan don’t help me to feel safe in the area. One of the tunnels we cross is more than 10 km long, and I am happy when we arrive in town and don’t have to cross further dark tunnels. Not so comfortable being uncomfortable! But then the Giant Panda bears make up for everything. I usually don’t like watching animals in captivity, but I must admit that they are absolutely adorable. They are quite a lazy bunch of animals, and we are happy to be the first in line (we’re at the research centre 45 min before opening) to observe them. Eating, playing, sleeping. All this takes about 45 minutes. And when the next visitors arrive at 10 am, the Panda bears are just slouching on the trees.

The same day we visit the Panda research facility, we walk up the mountains (500 m elevation gain - from 660 m to 1250 m) to a big Taoist temple on the Qingcheng Shan mountain. The site is beautiful but very busy two days before the Chinese National Day (October 1). On our way up and down, we meet this amazing man (94 years) with his son. We say hi, and he almost makes us cry. No teeth but the happiest face we have seen in a long time. By the way, Frank and I did feel our legs for two days after the hike. That’s why we’re so impressed by this old fellow.

The next morning, we bike another 65 km to Chengdu. The administrative capital of Sichuan. Huge city of 14,5 Mio people. The city in itself doesn’t have any particular attraction other than the Panda bears and the nature surrounding the city. On our way into the city, we observe big tree ‘replanting operation’ over a 15 km stretch. We don’t quite understand why and where the trees are coming from but it is really impressive. Otherwise, we enjoy our stay in the Holiday Inn Express at a horrendous price because booking.com screwed up our hotel reservation twice during a week long national holiday. The good thing is that we can rest in a luxurious hotel room, do our laundry, and prepare the next segment of our trip. It is also very exciting to know that my son and his family might join us for a short time of our trip, as well as very good friends.

I am now comfortable being uncomfortable, but it’s exciting to share the beautiful moments with my people.

And now my favourite gear since Kashgar:

  • my wooden stick

  • my shoes (they kept my feet warm at 4000m in the mountains)

  • my new tuque - you might remember, I send my blue tuque home to have less weight on my bike

  • my Thermarest mattress - I put it on the mattress in the hotels (mattresses feel like concrete in China)

What do I love about China so far:

  • no more diarrhea 

  • fruit and vegetables

  • Yak yoghurt and Tibetan butter tea

  • Chinese speaking English - I appreciate even more now how difficult it must be to learn it

  • the amazing paved roads

  • beautiful nature and Hui Muslims

What I don’t like about China on this part of our trip:

  • long tunnels you can’t avoid

  • menus without pictures - it becomes very challenging to order food 

  • camping spots are difficult to find

  • ferocious dogs

 

FRANK

It is a dark early morning, a couple of hours before sunrise, that we left our Kashgar hotel, heading to the airport.

After few rest, laundry, and bike maintenance days we did not really leave the city, I would say we escaped a city that has nothing to do anymore with the city I discovered in '95. What used to be a nice but already changing Uighurs town, full of good vibes, is now a big Chinese city where fake decorum remains in what was a charming original town.

Most of the Uighurs have “vanished”, only few from the old generation wander sadly around town surrounded by a now wide majority of Chinese Hans. Even the Animal Market, once known as the biggest and the most colorful on the Silk Road has lost its soul.

The all consuming state of surveillance, check points, and police presence everywhere has had a toll on the serenity that this place had before.

So yes, it was more an escape from something more enjoyable, especially after our border crossing experience  ( read the previous Story).

We have about 15Km to ride to the airport. It will be done with our headlamps on our foreheads, riding wide and empty boulevards. Some parts seem to be closed by a sort of curfew as access is blocked by police cars. As a result, it took no time to reach the airport.

Our naive dreams to find a way to travel western Tibet quickly faded away. It is a “no Zone” for foreigners. I biked across the Taklamakan desert in the past and there is no way I repeat that experience and there is definitely no reason to impose it on Sylvia.

So we booked a flight to get over that segment. Destination Lanzhou in the Gansu Province. From there we will be able to navigate our bikes through the Eastern side of Tibet. Less spectacular maybe than the Western wild section but richer in Tibetan culture as many Tibetans found refuge there.

Playing Dumb

Biking to the airport means no cardboard for the bikes. Bikes must be in boxes in order to be loaded in the plane. 

Knowing that it will be a “chaotic” process we arrived at the departure terminal about 4hours before the flight time.

Emptying our panniers and stocking everything in our 2 backpacks, panniers packed into each other to make one that will be our carry on. All fine except the bike with no box.

Pedals removed, handlebar turned at 90 degrees, chain off the chain ring and tires slightly deflated, it is with our best dumb smiles that we showed up at the check-in.

The bikes still on the floor, the backpacks are checked in first. 17kg each. No problem - we are good passengers traveling light-. The 2 backpacks tagged, they disappeared on the rolling mat. We now have one foot in the door, it will be hard to reject us.

Not sure what the lady at the check-in really said but the bikes that I think she tried to ignore at first, suddenly became a sure thing. 


“Those 2 Caucasians are not speaking mandarin, they are only smiling pointing the bikes on the floor and I've never been in that situation before”

The difficulty for us is to keep smiling and pretend that we have no clue why it may be a problem. Using the Translator App on her cell phone, we are told: “bike with box”.

A booth in a corner of the check-in area offers to wrap packages. I mean small packages. 

We are like hot potatoes that no one wants to keep in hands and so are thrown to someone else.

Still smiling but adding a sort of “I am sorry, so so sorry” grin on our faces, we pushed our bikes to the booth. Transforming in a second the still early eventless day of the poor guy into a real nightmare. No other option for him to get rid of the 2 hot potatoes. The airport at 7am is still empty.

Smartly, we bought some duct tape at the market the day before. So we can show our willingness to help him despite the deep distress (!?) we are in.

We found 2 small boxes that I cut to make them look like a one cardboard panel. Straddled the bike at its middle frame with the panel and duct tapped it. The guy did help, making me think that we were on a good path to a final solution. But then he decided that the wheels should be wrapped with or by something. String, rope, industrial straps,....the bikes look like a mummy. 

Back to the counter, dragging the bike on the floor since the wheels are now locked. 

Here are the “bikes with boxes”.

We are devoted passengers.

A manager is asked to rescue the overwhelmed employee and a manager always solves problems. Clearly annoyed by the situation, or by our idiotic smiles, constantly talking loudly to her radio device we followed her to the back building carrying and dragging our bikes almost inside the airplane. Mission accomplished.

Back on the road

Lanzhou, capital of the Gansu province,  is reached right before dark. So by the time we re-assembled and gears, entertaining in the same time hundreds of passengers rushing to either a taxi or a bus, it was with our headlamps again that we left the airport in a quest of the first hotel. The bikes surprisingly are fine, no damage. The lack of protection probably was the best protection.

We are 70km from Lanzhou city. We covered the distance the following day after a night in a crappy hotel.

A couple of days in Lanzhou hosted by an elderly couple renting a guest room in their apartment for few Yuans. The second part of our journey being decided we left a busy, polluted and noisy city like most of the Chinese cities behind us to get back into the mountains and their peaceful environment.

Surrounded by green sceneries contrasting with the dry and mineral landscapes we crossed in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan we progressed gradually uphill to get back far above the 3000m marks.

The Eastern slopes of the Himalayas known as the Kham and Amdo regions being under the effect of the coastal climate means our camp spots are definitely not as dusty but it does mean the are more wet. Day after day the Tibetan culture became omnipresent. Temples, monasteries, prayer flags everywhere hanging on poles and trees but also marking the top of each pass. We stopped in many little villages as the veracity of their temples and monasteries make them more interesting to discover than what is now more a touristic attraction in other main tourist destinations.

Chinese do not maintain. They build, they use and when the time has passed by, they demolish to rebuild bigger. It is true for any infrastructure like roads but also for what could be seen as a part of their historical heritage. Many times we had the impression of visiting a Disneyland. Cheap copies of what used to be old but now supporting multiple souvenir stores or restaurants. That includes the Tibetan culture that in some well known cities has become a real economic support for the area. We are still wondering if Tibetans have their fair part in that sort of economic development. 

A lot of money has been invested to give a reason for local tourists or foreigners to make a stop.

Money is also invested in huge proportions into what can probably been qualified as pure speculation. High rise apartment buildings, entirely new cities annexed to older towns that maybe one day will be knocked down for newer dwellings.

Villages turned in towns, towns turned in little cities, little cities turned in metropolises.

Feelings that the country side in its entirety must move in only a few places.

Vast but locked

Within few hours of riding we realized that camping will be challenging. We do not mind a bed and white sheets but we feel cozier in our tent. Camping means cooking on our stove. It is a multifuel stove. One of those we always have with us. It works in any type of weather, any altitude, any temperature and as a multifuel item works anywhere..... except in China.

The easiest way to get fuel when we don’t know what is available is to go to a gas station and fill up our fuel bottle with gas for car. It works everywhere in the world....except in China.

For some reason we are not allowed to fill up the 1 liter canister at any gas station. Figure out why!? We tried few times and were rejected each time. I lost my temper more than once. I explain, they can see it is for our stove and by the way, the canister smells gas...so this is not the first time. I know a close friend who would have just whispered and said “idiots” leaving the discussion there. Not me. Stupidly I persisted and insisted until my “attitude” was not helping anymore...obviously.

Cooking was just not possible for the moment despite an unsuccessful test done with paint dissolvent. Not much more luck with wild camping either. Along each road we see only fences, sometimes a gate but locked. Not sure why these fences are everywhere. No clear justification.

We are far from the abundant and gorgeous camp spots in Central Asia. However sometimes we were lucky and either hidden or isolated enough we had some good nights in our 3 square meter tent after a cold evening meal.

So many smiles

Less ethnic Chinese, more Tibetan smiles and good moods. On the 1200Km between Lanzhou and Chengdu we probably have seen less than 10 Caucasians. Just our presence always brings a reaction. It felt like they had never seen anyone like us before. Hard to believe but it happens all the time. We become a curiosity, a subject for tons of new selfies, politely requested or not.

When we come across some Tibetans dressed with clothes showing their origin we may have had some scruples to ask to take a picture. These scruples quickly faded away. Our portraits have been taken more often than we took theirs. Tibetans asked shyly, chinese have a more direct approach. Our legs showed because of our Mountain bike shorts (not the Lycra cyclist shorts !! ) are a mystery for them when they think it is already winter. Our fat tires (and I am here talking about the inflated rubber band around the rims) added to catch the attention and provoke what are still mysterious comments for us. Even though we  have a vague idea of their contents.

When we see stupor on faces, usually a big smile is the master key to unlock and can be sometimes followed by a big surprising “hello Baby”. Not sure where that comes from.

We have visited nice cities like Xiahe (watch the short video on our gallery page) and its huge Labrang monastery (one of the 6th biggest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries). We have experienced even nicer small villages sometimes away from main roads, like Langmusi, nested into Rocky Mountain slopes. These villages have special vibes and in a couple of them we stayed more than one night, captivated by the atmosphere.

Accommodations in small villages are very cheap, if you look for them. Sometimes less than US$10. Although very rustic and sometimes....smelly, their main quality remains their price. But they also offered good shelter on rainy nights and if by chance we were camping out on one of these stormy nights, the room can be transformed in a drying space for our tent and gears...until the next rainy night camping.

Not everything went that smoothly.

We have to attest that nothing is too big, too impossible for chinese. They do not do things half way. They go for it and they go fast. We crossed brand new cities or towns that are not even existing on google maps, huge 6 lane boulevards that when showing on a map are still represented as simple streets. Confusing at the beginning when you try to orientate. Huge cranes everywhere but sometimes a new town is totally empty, no soul except the poor few guys trying to run a business (restaurant, grocery, ...) in an empty city. Looking closely at the construction, the quality is not what it may look like at a first glance. You can count on a reconstruction within the next 10 years or so. Same for the roads and bridges. Can be scary sometimes but if you are lucky enough to be among the firsts to ride or drive the new asphalt then you don't care what may happen in 10 years. The G213 is a long road of 2500km, crossing Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. From deep valleys, mountain passes to high grassland plateaus. We have cycled the road for over 1000km. At least 2/3 of it was freshly re-paved with the smoothest asphalt you can imagine. Making our few steep climbs to high passes “almost” a fun experience. Sylvia does not like the word “almost” but would agree on that. The only problem is that they never take off the previous layer of asphalt. They cover it. And layers after layers we end up sometimes at about 30cm above the side of the road. Tricky when a truck or a car can not give you enough room because the road is narrow and traffic  is coming at you from the opposite direction.

Sometimes a such “easy” progress makes me feel nostalgic for the gravel roads we had in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The challenge defines the pride that comes soon after the pass has been reached.

....“Almost.....”

Crossing the grasslands and wetlands were one of the highlights of the Gansu and Sichuan traverse. Summer season was over but many shepherds and nomads were still present with their livestock. Mainly yaks but sometimes some sheeps or goats. Rain at nights with the drop in temperatures turned it to snow. Melting during the day but offering superb contrasted landscapes in the morning.

The EasternTibetan plateau, the grasslands, is not the habitat of Yaks only, it is also the property of wild dogs. We have friends back in Vancouver owning a very cute Tibetan terrier. We were expecting to see many of them. None, we have not seen one. Do they really exist somewhere in Tibet? Instead, they have the famous Tibetan Mastiff. A huge monster that looks so friendly on the Internet forum. 

Sylvia made the first encounter. In a long downhill, the switchbacks after the pass with the green background and dark clouds were perfect for a video. I stayed at the pass filming and photographing her descent. She was flying on the smooth pavement. I stopped a few times during my ride down. The light was magic and prayer flags everywhere added nice touches of colors. When I finally caught up with her, she was standing on the side of the road in tears. At first, I thought she fell, seeing the big tear in her pants. 

She urged me to take out the safety kit, showing me her bleeding ankle and mentioning a dog attacked her by surprise.

As cyclists in Asia, like in South America or Africa, we get used to dogs chasing us and barking at us. Most of the time, just slowing down and facing them is enough to make them think twice. I had a few problems in the past while cycling through the Mongolian steppes where roads did not exist, barely some tracks not even a dirt roads. But nothing really serious.

I gave Sylvia the first aid kit and decided to teach some lesson to that dog hidden behind the concrete wall that was limiting the edge of the pavement in that tight curve. I could hear Sylvia behind me screaming that the dog was aggressive and I should stay put. Holding a rope in my hand I was sure of myself, this guy was going to remember that day....big time!

Not sure what exactly happened or how it did happen but in a fraction of second I was facing a much bigger sized dog than expected and the bastard decided to jump on me, not one moment concerned by my determination to show who was the chief. Everything went really fast, the not so proud Frank anymore managed to get back on his 2 feet, with a bleeding knee and a big hole in the wind proof pants we put on for the cold downhill.

I could not believe what was just happening.

We both calmed down, disinfected the wounds and lucky us we found a dirt path that allowed us to loop around that section of the road and its ferocious guardian.

After that episode, we both carried a long wood stick. Many times we had to thread the dogs, sometimes in gangs of 4-5, pushing the bike so that they can be used as shields. Tapping the stick on the handlebar or on the pavement and clearly showing it, was enough to back them off but sometimes they ambushed us and we were not ready for them.  A few more scary moments happened but nothing turned really ugly.

Our wild camping spots in the grasslands were also dog stories. We could hear them in groups wandering around nomads camps, their livestock and our tent, barking all night long. Not our best nights.

Chengdu, end of the second chapter

The last 300km, roughly, were downhill. From 4000m, the last pass, we dropped down to 500m. The elevation of Chengdu. A great but oppressive section. Surrounded by steep slopes the valleys are narrow, dark, and the mountains are totally unstable. Never have I seen mountains falling apart from everywhere on such a long distance. Landslides, rocks and dirt on the road. Still the Chinese government is investing in big projects. A fast train railway is under construction, the 2 lane road will probably be very soon a 3 lane road. New tunnels are built. Nothing seems to stop the development not even the nature of the terrain nor the geology. 

The area is known to be a very high risk earthquake zone. In 2008, a 7.5 on the Richter scale, earthquake devastated the region, killing more than 50000 people, among them many kids at school. 10 years after you can still see the scars of the catastrophe. It took about 4 years to re-open access to the entire valley. By then, many of the survivors had left the area. Transforming some of the few villages remaining intact into ghost towns. In 2017 a huge landslide washed out a big chunk of the road, the only access to the high plateau and the grassland. It was an ultimate stress to the entire local tourism industry and life in the valleys and plateau in general.

Along the road we have seen abandoned villages for about 3 days. The few towns on the other end of the road, despite their touristic assets, could not been reached as the valley and the road are the only overland access. Very sad.

Not sure what the train and road constructions will bring back. Most of the population, mainly the young generation, has moved away in a quest of work. Most of the villages that in some aspect could offer a cultural support (mainly Tibetan ), are in full rejuvenation. Few locals are working hard to restore a form of heritage that may attract some tourists soon. But I can not avoid seeing the fragile environment and despite the huge investment done how a simple landslide or worse, another earthquake can bring back to post 2008 the entire region. Everything seems so ephemeral and uncertain.

Having no clue of the road sign significance we are just happy to ride and enjoy our surroundings. The last 150km are in a very narrow valley. Really impressive and as said very unstable. We get used to the endless honking. All motorized vehicles are honking to let you know they are there. The driving code is fairly simple. If you are bigger than the others sharing the road with you, you have the right to impose yourself. Just let them know you are there. Honk!

In that concept, cyclists are just before pedestrians...at the bottom of the ladder. That being said we never felt unsafe and eventually the honking stopped bothering us....”almost”

So when suddenly you realize that everything is quiet around you, you begin to worry. Something is not right.
As usual if/when you see police agents, they are around 18 years old and rather too busy with their cell phones to be ....efficient. 

We have seen, a few times in a row, police along the road where workers were working at road construction. We vaguely “heard” about a new landslide that washed out a bridge and indeed we have been deviated to another road that took us higher and higher up above the valley before going down back to the main road. We went through some tunnels. No lights inside so always a bit stressful with just our headlamps and traffic that does not really slow down because the loud honking is enough to let you know you are not alone.

More and more worker crews on the road and inside tunnels less and less to none traffic forced some questioning. Workers nor police stopped us, they even waved us with a big smile. We have ridden many kilometers on a road officially closed, crossed more than 12 tunnels, the longest one was 10km long with just our headlamp. It has been our private driveway and our private tunnels on a very smooth chinese asphalt.

In Chengdu, with 13 million people, most of the sightseeing and tourist attractions are located outside of the city and we passed them on our way or they will be on our way South later. The panda research centers and reserves, the monasteries, the Taoist temples, the earthquake memorial have been visited and explored on our way to the city. The city is a metropolis with no real interest. A mix of different social classes with quarters for the wealthiest and quarters for the less fortunate.

Showers and laundry done, it won’t be too long before we heading back into the mountains for the third chapter of our journey. To be continued.

ChinaZenija Esmits